For April vacation we decided to visit Baltimore — partly because we wanted to see the city, partly because we knew a couple of people there, and partly because it was an excuse to ride on the high-speed Acela Express. We splurged on first class, which provided us a helpful attendant dedicated to our car, food and drink service at our seats, and (most important) wider seats with extra legroom. The food was merely adequate, and first class was occasionally bumpy (just like regular “business” class, surprise, surprise), and we didn’t really take advantage of the unlimited beverages (a glass or two of wine doesn’t compete with the four Bloody Marys consumed by each of the guys in front of us), but I suppose the more comfortable seating made it worth paying the extra fee. In any case, the Acela was mostly a very enjoyable experience — certainly much better than flying, and not just because I like trains. Avoiding all the security hassles at an airport is the #1 advantage, but there are many others; in general, going by train is just the civilized way to travel, and it’s a real pity that it’s dying out in North America. My only complaint is that the free WiFi service was pretty lame, being slow at the best of times and cutting out altogether at others.
Speaking of splurging, we decided to stay at the Hilton in the Inner Harbor neighborhood, mostly because we already have a relationship with them as we always stay at the Hilton Garden Inn when we go to Elmira. This particular Hilton provided several advantages but also many disadvantages. The biggest plus was the view from our 18th-floor room (of course they called it the 19th, since they skipped floor 13):
I suppose we would have appreciated this view even more if we had been sports fans. (The tourist info person at the city’s Visitor Center told us that Baltimoreans always appreciate visitors from Boston. “We like to take their money,” she explained, “since they always spend a lot when they come here to watch the Red Sox beat the Orioles.”) Anyway, the room was comfortable, the quality of the furniture matched the view, and the location couldn’t be beat.
Those are the advantages. The disadvantages all sound petty, but they added up when compared to the much less expensive Hilton Garden Inn: this regular (“full-price”) Hilton charges for WiFi, serves disappointing breakfasts, provides no fridge or microwave, has a sink that’s set back six inches and can be used easily only if you’re tall and skinny (neither of which we are), and features a shower head that’s too high for me to reach (and much too high for Barbara, who’s 4’9″). All of this for a single room that costs a lot more per night than our suite in Elmira. Now of course this is partly (largely?) because of the economic differences between Elmira and Baltimore, but it would be interesting to see what the Garden Inn costs in Baltimore (yes, there is one, in an almost-as-convenient location).
After walking around the Inner Harbor area, we stopped at the aforementioned Visitor Center, from which we took a 100-minute guided tour of the city on one of those fake trolleys. Despite the many errors made by our guide, a retired podiatrist, I’m really glad we took the tour and always recommend these things to newcomers to any city. They’re the best way to get an overview of the city and an orientation to what’s where. Then you know what to do for the rest of your visit.
I mentioned that our guide made many errors. Here are five of them:
- He claimed that the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore is the oldest Unitarian church in the United States. It was established in 1817. Dorchester’s First Parish Church was established in 1630. Not much of a contest there.
- Speaking of churches, he identified one as a “Lithuanian mosque”… and then compounded his mistake by observing that it’s a “Lithuanian Catholic mosque.”
- Another religious one: when we passed the Holocaust memorial, the guide referred to the “one million Jews killed by Hitler.” It’s not that I want to play a numbers game here, but one million is far from six million.
- On a non-religious matter, he pointed out the house of Wallis Simpson, who married “King Henry VIII.” Edward, Schmedward, let’s call him Henry.
- Finally, when we passed the building where Homicide: Life on the Street was filmed (see picture below), the guide observed that this wonderful TV series was directed by John Waters. Not even close!
The guide was also rather clueless about the response of one tourist while driving through the nearby German and Polish neighborhoods. “The Polish immigrants were unwilling to live next to the Germans,” he remarked.
The woman in the back of the bus said, “Gee, I wonder why.”
“It’s because the Germans invaded Poland before World War II…” the guide started to explain.
“She was being sarcastic!” interrupted another tourist.
After the “trolley” tour, we mostly got around on foot, especially when exploring the fascinating Mt. Vernon and Fells Point neighborhoods. We had to try out the light rail at least once, and we often took advantage of the wonderful new Charm City Circulator, which provides free and frequent bus service in a loop throughout the downtown area. With two routes still to go, the first route has been open for only three months and is already a tremendous success. At one point we needed to take a regular city bus, as we were going to the Baltimore Museum of Art (see next paragraph), which is outside of the downtown area. Not being completely sure of where the nearest bus stop might be, I whipped out my iPhone and checked the Maps app, which not only located the nearest stop for the #3 bus but even told us that the next bus would be coming along in four minutes! (I know, I sound like an Apple ad, but it was incredibly convenient.)
We visited three museums during our brief visit, and can highly recommend all of them:
- The Walters Art Museum has an extraordinary eclectic collection. We focused on the Egyptian artifacts, the Islamic manuscripts, and the special exhibit of Japanese cloisonné.
- The B&O Railroad Museum is perhaps of more specialized interest, but it has a fine collection of vintage locomotives and railway cars that visitors can explore (many cars are restored to their original condition), as well as a couple of well-done model railroad layouts.
- The 600-pound gorilla is the astonishing Baltimore Museum of Art, which has to be one of the top art museums in the country. Most fascinating was their temporary exhibit about Cezanne and his influence on American modernism, which I found both enjoyable and informative. The Antioch mosaics, the European art in general, and especially the Cone Collection all deserved more time than we had. If you’re ever in Baltimore, don’t miss this museum!
Finally, we can’t go anywhere without mentioning restaurants. All in all, we were a little bit disappointed in the food we had in Baltimore, and I’m sure we could have done better. Although we were told that it was silly for us as Bostonians to go out for seafood, it seemed sillier not to. Why go somewhere and avoid their specialty? So we mostly — but not exclusively — ate seafood. One dinner we ate at Phillips Seafood, which started with two strikes against it because of being both touristy and a chain, but it turned out to be perfectly adequate. We also ate at the famous Bertha’s Mussels, still touristy but at least local; it was good, but definitely not gourmet. On the gourmet side we did have an excellent meal at the Marie Louise Bistro, but we concluded with an overpriced and unimpressive experience at the LDS restaurant our last night. We went there because it was raining and we were exhausted from all our walking, so we found the closest restaurant to our hotel. At first we thought that the sign meant that it was a Mormon restaurant, but it turned out to stand for “Luna del Sea.” This hybrid of English and fake Italian turned out to represent the cuisine all too well, and neither the service nor the ambiance made me comfortable. Don’t bother going there the next time you’re in Baltimore.
Oh — two more things. First, it’s worth noting that there are many instances of public art in the downtown area. Here are a couple of examples:
|Finally, on the right we have what purports to be the narrowest house in Baltimore: the visitors’ info claims that it’s only nine feet wide, and it certainly looks to be no more than that. If you look carefully, you’ll see from the brick that there are different row houses almost immediately to the left and right of the doorway.|
I am sure that we are going to return.